Life Story

Robert Pack, poet and teacher, was born in New York City on May 19, 1929. His father, Carl Pack, whose family immigrated to America from Germany, served as a New York assemblyman under Governor Franklin Roosevelt, and then as a state senator under Governor Herbert Lehman. Pack’s mother, Henrietta, came to America as a child with her family from Russia to escape the pogroms.

After a long illness, Carl Pack died at the age of forty-six when his son Robert was sixteen. With help from her brother during her husband’s long illness, Henrietta sent Robert and his younger sister, Marian (who also became an educator) to the Fieldston Ethical Culture School in Riverdale New York. The school’s emphasis on social service has had a life-long influence on Pack.

Two deep friendships that began in fifth grade with Richard Rubin and Woody Klein, have continued to the present. Rubin became a teacher of political science and a philanthropist, and Klein became a journalist. The importance of friendship has been a major theme in Pack’s poetry from his first book of poems, THE INRONY OF JOY, 1955, to his most recent collection.

During his high school years at Fieldston, Pack excelled as an athlete, both as a slugging third baseman and as a halfback on the school’s championship football team. Pack believes there is an instinctive connection between playing sports and writing poetry, in which the imagination must display its prowess within a set of formal rules.
Pack’s mother’s marriage to Abraham Kaufman, a successful businessman, a year after Carl’s death, coincided with Pack’s attachment to Isabelle Miller, his high-school girlfriend. Pack was twenty-one when they married; they divorced eight years later. Pack’s step=father suffered from depression, so the family had more illness to deal with: the need to overcome vulnerability became one of Pack’s ongoing themes.

Pack’s love of poetry developed at Dartmouth College where he immersed himself in the poetry of Robert Frost. When Frost visited the college to give talks, he and Pack would take long walks, discussing the craft of poetry. Pack has written many essays on Frost’s work, including his book-length study, BELIEF AND UNCERTAINTY, published in 2006. In 1991 Dartmouth College awarded Pack a gold medal for “Outstanding Leadership and Achievement.”

In graduate school, Pack turned to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In 1958 Pack published WALLACE STEVENS: HIS POETRY AND THOUGHT, which took an overview of Stevens’ body of work following the publication of Stevens’ COLLECTED POEMS in 1954. Pack has continued to write about Stevens as in his essay, “Place and Nothingness,” published by The Wallace Stevens Journal. Stevens display of what he called “the gaiety of language” enhanced Pack’s love of alliterative and sonorous effects.

Pack’s first editor at Scribners was the poet, John Hall Wheelock, who, along with his teachers at Columbia University: Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren, became exemplary models of lives devoted to literature. While attending graduate school, Pack taught for two years at The New School for Social Research, an experience that solidified his desire to become a teacher himself.

In 1957 Pack was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy to translate poetry. During his year abroad, he traveled extensively, attending opera performances. Later he would publish translations of the Mozart librettos, and the figure of Mozart -- along with other beloved figures, such as Darwin, Freud, and Einstein –- appear throughout his poetry.

After returning to America Pack was hired at Barnard College where he taught for the next seven years, sharing an office with Marcus Klein, a critic and historian of American literature. He and Klein retained their close ties even after both went on to teach at other institutions.

In 1960 Pack married Patricia Powell, a master’s student in economics at Columbia University. In 1964 Pack was hired by the poet John Ciardi, then director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, to teach at the Conference. That summer Pack met Middlebury College’s president, James Armstrong, who invited Pack to develop a new program in creative writing at Middlebury college. And so the Packs, along with their one-year-old son, moved to Middlebury, where they built a house in the countryside.

In 1970, while teaching a course in English poetry, Pack read an interpretive book about Gerard Manley Hopkins that so impressed him with its insights that he called its author, the biographer and poet Paul Mariani, on the phone and invited him to lecture at Middlebury. The two poets stayed up talking about their favorite poems throughout the night. From that time on, Pack and Mariani have exchanged poems with suggestions and criticisms.

The Vermont landscape as a metaphor for inner moods and emotions has inspired many of Pack’s lyrical poems, culminating in the 1980 publication of WAKING TO MY NAME: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS. In 1984, in FACES IN A SINGLE TREE, a sequence of dramatic monologues, Pack ventured out into narrative poetry. Each of these poems is spoken by different characters under particular conditions and circumstances. A recent collection of poems, COMPPOSING VOICES, an expansion of his earlier volume of monologues, was a recipient of a Montana book Award: “Pack’s crisp, sparkling language touching on subjects of personal importance to everyone creates a wonderfully accessible collection of poetry.”

In ”Before It Vanishes.” a sequence of meditations on the philosophical implications of Big Bang theory Pack -- according to the biographer Paul Mariani in his essay, “Staring Into the Abyss” from his book. “GOD AND THE IMAGINATION, depicts Pack’s poems as contemplations of “the terrible beauty in the starlit heavens.” Mariani claims that Pack’s overriding themes are “indifferent, heartbreaking, mortal beauty, and one’s family and one’s friends.” Nick Gilbert in American Journal of Physics described “BEFORE IT VANISHES” “as a bold and highly original foray in verse by a humanist into the enchanting world of current physical thought.”

In 1986 he published CLAYFELD REJOICES, CLAYFELD LAMENTS, his comic epic which follows the protagonist Clayfeld from birth to death. One of Pack’s fundamental beliefs is that music and laughter (from parody to puns) are the sustaining powers that enhance our lives and help us to endure suffering and adversity. In most of his subsequent books, Pack has included poems with narrative structures.

In 1998 Pack published ROUNDING IT OUT, a collection of poems in a new form of his invention, called a sonnetelle, – which combined the tightly rhymed aspects of the sonnet with the repeating refrain line of the villanelle. The Kirkus Review said of the book that “Pack’s best lines have a Keatsian intelligence: his simple puns and crisp vocabulary, invite us to find “solace in grief when grief is rhymed” -- sound advice from an expert.”

For thirty-four years, Pack taught at Middlebury College, specializing in poetry workshops, modern British and American Poetry, English Romantic poetry, and the plays of Shakespeare. He was awarded the Abernethy chair of American Literature, and later a special College chair that allowed him to teach anywhere in the curriculum, including the sciences: big bang theory, Darwinian evolution, and Freudian psychoanalysis.

During this period, Pack also taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where he was appointed Director in 1973, serving in that position for the next twenty-two years. His tenure was distinguished by the outstanding writers he invited to serve on the teaching staff, including the novelists John Gardner and John Irving, and the poets Howard Nemerov, Donald Justice, and Mark Strand. Pack transformed the aspiring writers from half auditors half/contributors to all contributors, so all attendees would have their manuscripts critiqued. As director, Pack was supported through these years by his assistant director, the philosopher Stanley Bates. Packs years at Middlebury College were replete with probing conversations with his colleagues John Elder, the environmentalist, and Jay Parini, prolific novelist.

Pack also taught for thirty-two years at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, a graduate program primarily for high school teachers. Pack takes pride in the younger writers he has mentored over the years at both Middlebury and Bread Loaf, including such poets as Larry Raab, Sue Ellen Thompson, Gary Margolis, Julia Alvarez, Richard Jackson and Pamela Hadas.

For many years the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation sent Pack to various colleges throughout the country on teaching stints. His second visit to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. led to the College awarding Pack in 2001 an Honorary Doctorate as a “weaver of words…for your preeminence in the field of American letters and your continued dedication to students.”

In 1996 Pack retired from Middlebury College, and he and his wife Patty moved to Montana to be nearer their children. Erik, now a carpenter and architect, built his parents a spacious log home with a spectacular view of the Mission Mountain range. Since Pack still enjoyed preparing new materials and challenging young minds, he contracted to teach in the University of Montana Honors College as Distinguished Senior Professor. Pack introduced a seminar, WAYS OF KNOWING, which was subsequently adopted as the sole requirement for all Honors College students. Designed to be team taught, the course enabled Pack to collaborate with his colleagues John Glendening, a specialist in Darwin’s influence on English novelists, and Dan Spencer, an environmentalist. In 2006, the University of Montana awarded Pack its presidential medal for outstanding teaching: “for distinguished accomplishment that lends lustre to the University of Montana.”

.Pack has continued to explore the major themes his poems have addressed from the beginning: family and friends, responsibility to the natural world, the transience of life, the fragility of happiness, and the consolations offered by art and music. As the poet Mark Strand writes of Pack’s most recent book: “LAUGHTER BEFORE SLEEP is an extraordinary book. It is suffused with a sense of loss, sweetly and sometimes ruefully acknowledged. Pack’s close and beautiful observations of nature have a curious urgency. One feels that his contemplation of nature is a form of salvation. Pack continues to exhibit a technical mastery that has all but disappeared from recent poetry. This is an exceptionally readable book. The story poems are deeply moving, filled with great tenderness, charm and wit.”